Joyce's American Beauty
The Pervert with the Heart of Gold
In the "Nausicaa" chapter of James
Joyce's Ulysses, a virginal exhibitionist, Gerty McDowell,
flashes her "knickers. . .the wondrous revealment, half-offered
like those skirt-dancers" at Leopold Bloom, igniting his
sexual fireworks on a beach in Dublin (366). In a film set almost
a hundred years later in an American suburb, another virginal
seductress flips her dance skirt, giving admirers a peek at her
panties, and inspires a similar burst of auto-eroticism in Bloom's
modern incarnation, Lester Burnham.
Xerox collage © Susan Sutliff Brown,
with a photo by Berenice Abbot.
James Joyce Wins an Oscar.
The "metempsychosis" of Leopold Bloom into Lester Burnham
isn't the only astonishing similarity between Ulysses and
American Beauty. When screenwriter Alan Ball accepted the
2000 Golden Globe and Academy Awards for his screenplay of American
Beauty, he owed a substantial debt albeit universally
unnoticed and, as he claimed in a telephone interview, "unintended"
to Joyce's masterpiece, the book chosen just months earlier
by the Modern Library editorial board as the "best
novel" of the twentieth century.
Yes, the ending of American Beauty represents a major departure
from the plot of Joyce's novel but an explicable one in
a modern update of the Ulysses saga. Late twentieth-century audiences,
which have become desensitized to escalating media violence over
the past hundred years and have, in fact, developed an appetite
for gore, require a bloody resolution. Despite the ending, we
are left with striking reincarnations of Irish urbanites into
suburban American personalities.
Consider other parallels: heroes Leopold Bloom and Lester Burnham
(same initials, LB) are both middle-aged, middle-class, mediocre,
unappreciated admen (Lester describes himself as "a whore
for the advertising industry"), neither of whom has had
sex with his wife in years. Ultimately both Bloom and Lester yearn
to regain the past unity and warmth of their homes.
Bloom muses, "I was happier then" and fantasizes he
could "somehow reappear reborn" to his marriage bed
with wife Molly (728) while Lester tells us, "That's my wife
Carolyn. . . . We used to be happy" and vows, "It's
never too late to get it back" (2, 5). Likewise, both feel
displaced by a growing estrangement from their teenage daughters:
Bloom's surviving child, Milly, and Lester's only child, Jane.
To compensate for their non-existent sex lives, both Leopold and
Lester turn first to solo sex in the bath (or in Lester's case,
the shower) and both enjoy adulterous, guilty dreams of unorthodox
sexual practices, often accompanied by flower imagery. Eventually,
our heroes masturbate a second time in response to what Joyce
describes in the "Ithaca" chapter of Ulysses
as "the eroticism produced by feminine exhibitionism (rite
In both novel and film, the young women share reciprocal fantasies
with their voyeurs, although, in both stories, no sex beyond what
one of Joyce's characters calls "a honeymoon in the hand"
To renew their flagging manhood, Leopold and Lester each turn
to a muscle-building program, Bloom with "2 months of consecutive
use of Sandow-Whiteley's pulley exerciser" to achieve "the
most repristination of juvenile agility" (681), and Lester
by lifting weights in his garage and jogging so he can "look
good naked" (44).
Meanwhile both wives are "getting it up" with slick
impresarios who are advancing the women's careers: Molly Bloom
with her music promoter, Blazes Boylan, "a bounder,"
"a billsticker," "a bester," "a boaster"
(732) and Carolyn Burnham with her Boylan clone, the entrepreneurial
"King of Real Estate," Buddy Kane.
Eventually both husbands respond to their wives'
infidelity with resignation and understanding. Bloom reasons that
Molly's sexual encounter with Boylan is "as natural as any
and every natural act" deserving "more abnegation than
jealousy, less envy than equanimity" (733). Likewise, despite
his wife's sexual romps with the King of Real Estate, Lester contemplates
a photograph of a laughing Carolyn and murmurs her name, not with
anger, but, as a stage direction in the shooting script instructs,
"with love" (99).
A parallel course in both novel and movie recounts the hero's
development of a vaguely homoerotic relationship as surrogate
father to a brooding, precocious young man obsessed with theories
of beauty. In both novel and movie, the young men leave home estranged
from their own fathers, Joyce's Stephen Dedalus to escape the
poverty and sordidness of a household in decline because of his
father's selfish, drunken behavior and Ball's Ricky Fitts, to,
as Ball's stage directions indicate, "break free" from
a household in the clutches of the physically abusive and tyrannical
Both young men have also lost the protection and love of their
mothers; Stephen's mother is "beastly dead" (8) and
Ricky's mother is eternally silent and ineffectual as the result
of some form of battered-wife syndrome.
Beyond the parallel family situations, Stephen and his counterpart
Ricky are esthetes consumed with questions about the nature of
beauty, particularly in mundane objects, and specifically in an
ordinary container for groceries. The basket Stephen torturously
dissects as he pontificates on the nature of beauty in Portrait
becomes a wind-tossed plastic bag in American Beauty.
Pointing to "a basket which a butcher's boy had slung inverted
on his head," Stephen tells us in Portrait, "The
same object may not seem beautiful to all people," but the
basket can have a beauty and "radiance" which is "felt
by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his
imagination" (212-13). Similarly, Ricky says he learned from
watching the dancing white plastic bag, "that there was this
entire life behind things" and "there's so much beauty
in the world" (60).
Stephen's lofty goal as writer/observer in the "Proteus"
episode, "The signatures of all things I am here to read,
seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot"
(37) metamorphoses, with the help of modern technology, into Ricky's
reading "the life behind things" (such as plastic bags
and dead seagulls), through the lens of a video camera.
At the heart of both novel and movie, however, is the character
whose initials are LB. Leopold Bloom is Joyce's special contribution
to the pantheon of literary characters: the voyeur and masturbator
who is also everyman. The pervert with the heart of gold. The
character who experiences unorthodox sexual urges but is also
a hero. The existence of characters like Bloom and Lester demonstrate
that private, even disturbing, sexual peccadilloes are not incompatible
with good. In fact, suggest both novel and film, they are inseparable
from what is human. Joyce's Bloom who falls on all fours
squealing, "More, Mistress" in a sado-masochistic encounter
in "Circe," tries on his wife's underwear, looks up
women's skirts, and masturbates in public baths and on a public
beach--has also inspired the admiration and tender regard of readers
through the ages who celebrate him as what one Joycean character
calls an "allroundman" (235).
In his seminal biography of Joyce, Richard
Ellmann describes Bloom as "a nobody . . . yet there is god
in him. . . .The divine part of Bloom is simply his humanity
his assumption of a bond between himself and other created beings"
(372). Of the complicated emotions juggled by Kevin Spacey's Lester,
Richard Schickel in Time comments that despite Burnham's
inappropriate desire for the cheerleader, Lester, "boldly
challenging our sympathies. . . . somehow wins them because, to
borrow a phrase, he's a man in full."
Digital Film Still, American Beauty. Image captured
by Dan Christiansen.
Lester Burnham at his ad-agency desk,
"WE SEE THE CANVASSER AT WORK," James Joyce,
We admire both characters for their tolerance. Lester's voice-overs,
spoken from the beyond after he's been murdered by his homophobic
neighbor, sound like vintage Bloomian internal dialogue: "I
guess I should be pretty pissed off about what happened to me.
. .but it's so hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in
the world. . .And I can't feel anything but gratitude for every
single moment of my stupid little life" (100).
The personalities of other characters from Ulysses are
also reproduced with apparent faithfulness in the film. The self-employed
prima donna Molly Bloom feels no guilt about her infidelity, and
her general attitude about Bloom, although tempered with affection,
is "I'm not going to give him the satisfaction"(740).
Like Molly, Carolyn plunges guiltlessly into her affair with Buddy
and tells Lester, "There's a lot about me you don't know,
Mr. Smarty-man" (68).
In addition, the difference between virginal exhibitionists Gerty
McDowell, the dreamy reader of romance novels and ladies' popular
magazines who is looking for a "manly man" and "the
latest thing in footwear" (350-1), and Angela, a tough-talking
mall brat brought up on MTV, graphic media sex, and Calvin Klein
underwear ads reflects a difference in the historical periods
in which they appear, not in their basic personalities. Had Gerty
lived in the 1990's, she would have been a mall chick and wannabe
cheerleader, trying to attract a male by dressing "hot."
Joyce, who reveled in the Protean world where "God becomes
man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose" (50) would have
appreciated the metempsychosis by which, almost a century later,
a "canvasser of ads" becomes a telemarketer, a wife
boffing a boaster becomes an adulteress getting it up with an
egomaniac, a coy seductress becomes a bratty tease, and a misanthropic
self-styled genius becomes "mental boy."
In addition to the plot parallels and replication of character,
images and language patterns-such as the peek at underclothes
beneath the "dancing skirt" of Gerty and Angela-resonate
between the novel of the century and the film of the year. An
echo of Bloom's poignant memory of first love with Molly ("Oh
wonder! . . . Joy: . . . She kissed me. . . . Me. And me now"
 and "Young kisses: the first. Far away now past"
) resounds in Lester's question to Carolyn, "When did
you become so joyless?" (68).
To avoid the pain of marital betrayal, both
husbands reduce the adulterous antics of their wives to the same
juvenile sexual joke: potted meat. Whenever fears about Boylan's
pending rendezvous with Molly pinch at Bloom's consciousness throughout
the day, he quells them with a light jest by recalling the advertising
slogan, "What's a home without Plumtree's Potted Meat?"
Ironically, Bloom's fears are confirmed that night when he finds
"some flakes of potted meat" along with "the imprint
of a human form, male, not his" in his bed (731).
Keeping his own chin up, and according to the stage directions,
speaking in a voice that is "overly cheerful," Lester
makes the same defensive joke when he catches his wife with her
lover at the fast-food joint where he's flipping hamburgers. As
Carolyn and Buddy cruise into the drive-thru window to pick up
some "junk food" after their sexual "workout,"
Lester appears at the window and beams, "Smile! You're at
Mr. Smiley's! Would you like to try our new beef and cheese pot
pie on a stick?" (77-78).
In addition, Bloom's admiration for Stephen Dedalus ("I know
him. He's a gentleman, a poet"), the character who first
appeared in Stephen Hero before his more mature incarnation
in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, resonates verbally
and dramatically in Lester's awe of Ricky Fitts when he tells
him "You've just become my personal hero" (33). Finally,
a reminder of Stephen's bird girl in Portrait appears when
Jane discovers Ricky video-taping a dead seagull. "I'm filming
this dead bird because it's beautiful," he explains in a
voice-over, as Jane's face fills the screen (52).
Did all of these stray ingredients accidentally emerge a century
apart as the symptom of similar combined forces that define the
twentieth century? The most obvious conclusion is that Ball intended
his film as a tribute and contemporary reprise, set almost a hundred
years later, of the century's most famous story. But, in a pre-Oscar
telephone interview, Ball said, "No." In fact, he explained,
he has not read Ulysses. Although he remembers studying
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he never flipped
open the cover of Joyce's revered novel.
Confronted with the plot counterpoints, Ball was amazed and puzzled.
He repeated several times, "I really don't know what to make
of it," and finally added, "I guess I'm flattered."
Ultimately, said Ball, "I can only attribute the similarities
to the existence of archetypes that dwell in everyone's consciousness,
a Jungian collective unconscious." He pointed to the "themes
and narratives that recur in cultures which have had no contact
with one another."
In the same interview, Ball revealed another parallel. The genesis,
said Ball, for the characters and themes in his filmscript emerged,
as did Joyce's, directly from his personal experiences as an adult
and a young man: "When I was writing American Beauty,
I was in an advertising job I despised; I also grew up in a household
not dissimilar to Ricky's. And I'm forty-two Lester's age."
Ulysses, a book whose germination occurred, in part, while
Joyce was working at a dead-end job as a bank clerk, was published
on Joyce's fortieth birthday, and the two male protagonists of
his novel are based on Joyce in his late thirties and as a young
man growing up among what Joyce tells us in Ulysses are
"houses of decay . . . Beauty is not there" (39).
As he puzzled over these parallels, Ball also pointed to a significant
difference between the writing of Ulysses and that of American
Beauty. Joyce labored alone for seven years while the final
screenplay of American Beauty, Ball pointed out, was the
product of filmmaking, one of the "collaborative arts."
It was," said Ball, "an effort among the fortuitous
mix of a great director and brilliant actors" who gave his
characters "dimensions much deeper" than he, the writer,
For example, "under director Sam Mendes, Thora Birch (Jane)
and Wes Bentley (Ricky) created characters of such depth and empathy"
that Ball said he was prompted to "abandon his original,
more sinister" ending for the film, the arrest of Ricky and
Janey for Lester's murder. It was "too callous," he
explained; "once the characters came alive in the filming,"
it was clear they were "too innocent" and had "too
Despite the modern ending, and although Ball collaborated with
others and did not consciously intend the parallels with Ulysses,
the similarities between the Irish novel of an urban mid-life
crisis and the film about an American suburban one are so specific
that a final question lingers: If Ulysses is the best novel
of the century and additionally one of the most popular titles
in the Western world, often selling only second to and often ahead
of the Bible, why has no movie-goer, reader, or reviewer recognized
the similarity between Alan Ball's prize-winning screenplay and
Joyce's famous book?
Possibly because the novel, despite being the
most universally owned by the reading public, is also the least
read. As Joyce scholar Tom O'Shea pointed out at a recent James
Joyce conference, ownership of Ulysses is part of a syndrome
which includes the buyer's pledge to read the book "eventually,"
"some day," "honest," followed by one or two
abandoned attempts. The unread Ulysses on the shelf functions
as an icon, a status symbol, and a future project.
Digital Film Still, American Beauty.
Image captured by Dan Christiansen.
Carolyn's Mr. Smarty-man scene, American
"Im not giving him the satisfaction," James
Ball's version of Joyce's plot and characters reflects how the
world has changed since Bloom's "fireworks" on the beach
in "Nausicaa" (published serially in the Little Review
at the time) ignited confiscation, book burning, legal prosecution
for obscenity, and banning in 1921 (Ellmann 518-19). In 2000,
for a film with a similar nymphet-inspired masturbation scene,
Ball received one of America's highest accolades, an Academy Award.
However, neither author exploited kinky sex for sensationalism
and shock value. Both the early Modernist novel writer and the
contemporary screenwriter embraced the same aesthetic goal in
depicting unorthodox and traditionally taboo sexual behaviors.
In James Joyce and Sexuality, Richard Brown concludes that
Joyce "is most keen to present his central characters with
a variety of shades of sexual tastes as if to suggest that such
varieties are intrinsic to human psychology" (83).
Ball echoes Joyce's thinking when he claims his film illustrates
that "although the puritanical would have us believe otherwise,
there is room for beauty in every facet of life" (114). That
both Joyce and Ball probed and exposed the secret sexual lives
of their characters while treating those characters with
tolerance and love marks the most distinctive parallel
between them as writers and social critics.
What's next for Ball? A film with characters corresponding to
the pilgrims in Canterbury Tales? Actually, he says he's
planning to take his unread copy of Joyce's famous book off the
shelf. Faced with the long list of parallels between Joyce's novel
and his script, Ball says, "I'm now inspired to read Ulysses."
Previously published at nasty,
home of the brattiest academics on the web.
Ball, Alan. "Afterword." The Shooting Script: American
Beauty. New York: Newmarket Press, 1999.
______. Personal Interview. January 10, 2000.
______. The Shooting Script: American Beauty. New York:
Newmarket Press, 1999.
Brown, Richard. James Joyce and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge
Brown, Susan Sutliff. "The Joyce Brothers in Drag: Fraternal
Incest in Ulysses." Gender in Joyce. Eds. Jolanta
W. Wawrzycka and Marlena G. Corcoran. Gainesville: UP of Florida,
Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. New York: Oxford UP, 1959.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Viking Press, 1964.
______. Ulysses. Random House, 1961.
Schickel, Richard. "Dark Side of the Dream." Time.
20 Sept. 1999: n. pag. Online. Juno. 9 Oct. 2000.
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